United Kingdom: where prisoners can lock their cells for privacy, and Guards are told to knock

For two years, inmates at a prison in Wales have been allowed to lock their cells from the inside — for privacy. Guards have been expected to follow a “knock first” policy before entering. The detainees have had access to laptops, through which they can order meals.

And please, don’t call them “prisoners”.

The unusual accommodations, publicized by the British newspaper The Telegraph and other news outlets this past week, were put in place at Berwyn, the largest prison in England and Wales, which opened in February 2017. The policies are part of a government overhaul of prison practices in England and Wales intended to improve conditions and bolster rehabilitation.

Six new jails are planned in the United Kingdom, The Telegraph noted. And despite opposition from some prison workers, the government regards Berwyn as “a model for a modern prison,” according to a continuing study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council seeking“ to unlock an age-old question of whether prisons can really rehabilitate offenders.“

But the approach has been a failure, an official from a trade union for prison workers said on Sunday. “It’s a social experiment that has been a complete disaster,” the official, Mark Fairhurst, the chairman of the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers said in a phone interview.

“Berwyn has the highest assault rates on officers — they lost control because they were too soft; they listened to psychologists who don’t do our jobs,” he added.

Berwyn, about 170 miles northwest of London, has capacity for 2,106 male inmates. The prison follows guidelines set out in a 2017 research project, “Well-Being in Prison Design,” that was funded by the Royal Institute of British Architects in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice.

As part of the measures, privacy locks were installed to allow inmates to lock their cells (though they can be overridden by guards); prison officers were required to knock on cell doors before entering; prisoners were provided with laptops that could gain access to an internal network; and different terms were used to refer to the men inside and to their cells.

“These physical measures are matched with the operational philosophy and terminology: Those in custody are referred to simply as ‘men’ and the cells are ‘rooms,’” according to the project’s guidelines.

“The guiding principle is that officers and staff are enablers of rehabilitation first and foremost,” the report added.

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